Sunday was the Super Bowl, and your friendly Washington bureaucracy had a message for you: No drones allowed.
Technically, NRG Stadium and the immediate vicinity, all of Houston, and the surrounding towns, are classified as a “No Drone Zone.”
Anyone flying a drone within 34.5 miles of the stadium was subject to criminal prosecution for violating the Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight restriction, which is punishable by a $100,000 criminal fine and up to a year in prison.
The FAA cited safety concerns to justify the move. As FAA Administrator Michael Huerta put it, “Drones … pose certain safety risks. We’re working closely with our safety and security partners to spread the No Drone Zone message as widely as possible.”
But not as wide as the “No Drone Zone” itself, evidently. The agency’s ad publicizing its decision to ban drones at the Super Bowl accumulated a meager 3,081 views on YouTube.
But even if it were viewed by every single one of the more than 2.2 million people affected by the temporary flight restriction, it would hardly matter.
The commercial simply says “the big game is a ‘no drone zone.’” It gave residents no indication that backyards in neighboring Tomball, Brookshire, and Alvin, Texas are “No Drone Zones” as well.
The FAA is creating, however inadvertently, a trap for unwary drone operators. It’s another drone-related misstep for an agency that has a long record of them.
Overstating the Drone Threat
The FAA has a point that drones flown inside, above, or around stadiums pose a safety hazard. Interference could cause a drone to lose its connection and spin out of control.
Some foolish drone operator trying to capture bird’s eye views of the Patriots’ history-making late game comeback could have inadvertently sent their drone tumbling into Tom Brady—something for which most New England fans would find a year’s imprisonment far too light a sentence.
Even worse, a deliberate attack carried out by a drone could be deadly.
For these very reasons, Congress mandated that the FAA establish no-fly zones over major sporting events to insulate high-profile targets, like Super Bowl venues, from these types of deliberate or accidental threats to public safety.
But is a drone hovering around a backyard barbecue more than 30 miles away from the big game really a security threat? It is difficult to see how.
The most popular models of drones, such as remotely controlled helicopters or quadcopters, have flight ranges that are nothing like full-sized aircraft. Thanks to limits in battery capacity and remote control signal strength, this type of drone has no hope of flying 34.5 miles.
Why, then, did the FAA indiscriminately ban all drone activity out to ranges that exceed, by many times over, the maximum flight ranges of most drones?
The answer, like so much of the FAA’s policy toward drones, is that it once again adopted a one-and-the-same approach to regulating that folds all drones into existing aircraft regulations.
The results, predictably, are not ideal, since most aircraft regulations have historically been written to deal with large, manned aircraft that operate very differently from small, unmanned aircraft.
This is true for the Super Bowl temporary flight restrictions as well. Policies for flight restrictions surrounding major sporting events were developed to deal with hazards and threats from full-sized, manned aircraft.
This is one of the reasons for the particularly wide, 30-nautical-mile radius of the temporary flight restrictions that surrounded the Super Bowl. Tightly controlling that airspace makes it easier to identify potential threat aircraft.
The size of the no-fly zone, meanwhile, allows time to respond to potential emergency situations. Since aircraft can fly at extreme speeds—a Boeing 737 can traverse 34.5 miles in roughly three and a half minutes—a fairly wide zone is needed.
But in 2014, the FAA issued a “Notice to Airmen,” including “unmanned aircraft and remote controlled aircraft” in the temporary flight restrictions surrounding sporting events.
The FAA made no effort to recognize the fundamental differences between drones and manned aircraft, not the least of which is the fact that most drones cannot cross even a fraction of the full width of these no-fly zones.
Instead, the FAA has taken the rather ridiculous position that any drone, including small devices that are essentially toys, flown anywhere in a 3,740-square mile slice of Texas is a public safety hazard.
This leaves open the possibility that law enforcement officers will be distracted by calls about innocuous drones operating within the no-fly zone, when they should be concentrating time and attention on actual threats to public safety.
A Smarter Approach
The FAA could have taken a more nuanced position.
A minority of drone models are fixed-wing craft that do have significantly higher top speeds and longer ranges than more common quadcopters. A reasonable argument could be made for including this category of drone in a blanket no-fly order.
The FAA would also have an argument for establishing a smaller drone no-fly zone that would include shorter-range quadcopters. Such a move would acknowledge their potential dangers as well as the functional limitations of most of these devices.
There is no reason to believe that a DJI Phantom or some other quadcopter flying more than 30 miles away from the Super Bowl is any kind of national security risk.
Localities and states generally have the responsibility to police their own jurisdictions, and while the FAA could support those efforts through federal resources, constantly overreaching into Americans’ backyards is not likely to help anyone.
Doing More Harm than Good
This is not the first time that the FAA has made a misstep in the drone space.
Over the last several years it has systematically established a firm regulatory hold over the drone industry, based largely on claims that only the heavy hand of a distant bureaucracy can safeguard society from conveniently overblown and hypothetical drone-related risks.
The willingness of the agency to consistently take actions that have little basis in fact or reality, and to expose unwary drone hobbyists to criminal enforcement actions meant to target and deter criminals and terrorists, undercuts that argument.
Sunday’s halftime opener featured, ironically enough, hundreds of drones, illuminated and performing complex, coordinated maneuvers with apparent flawless form.
The performance was pre-taped for a variety of reasons, including FAA regulatory concerns, but that does not detract from the spectacle. And the technology that made it possible will one day allow fleets of drones to work in concert to perform a variety of life-saving and revolutionary services.
So long as the FAA sticks to its strategy of regulatory aloofness, though, that future is a long way off.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal